Dear Raleigh City Councilmembers,
I urge you to support Z-18-22, the Western Boulevard TOD overlay mapping. I grew up along this corridor; my parents have lived along this corridor for nearly 50 years, as my father had a long career teaching at NCSU. The sharp contrast between the lively, pedestrian- and transit-oriented Hillsborough Street corridor north of NCSU and the dangerous, car-oriented Western Boulevard corridor south of NCSU was something that even as a small child I recognized as an urban design challenge. Now I’m an urban planning professional with 20 years of experience in the field, and I’m thrilled to see that the city finally has passed CP-10-21 and is considering Z-18-22 – a realistic, actionable implementation plan that will guide the transformation of Western Boulevard into something better than a traffic sewer.
My family’s familiarity with these neighborhoods is why we are invested in property there – and why we’re now working with the City of Raleigh’s real estate department to sell land that we own within this area for subsidized affordable housing development. We are selling at a discount to what we could get on the open market because we strongly believe in the vision set forth by the city’s adopted Western Boulevard Corridor Study (CP-10-21). I have seen many attempts over decades to realize the potential of the complicated intersection of Western, Hillsborough, Jones Franklin, Buck Jones, and Chapel Hill roads, but none have come to fruition because they were not matched by sufficient public infrastructure investment. This Bus Rapid Transit Line, which was funded through a referendum of Wake voters in 2016, provides that impetus - and has been matched by city voters’ 2020 funding commitment to affordable housing.
At tonight’s public hearing, you will hear a great deal of misinformation, fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the changes portended by this proposal. I’ve listened closely to previous public comments against this proposal, and one thing that’s struck me is that almost all of the complaints identified are about results of the *PRIOR*, car-centered development paradigm that resulted in the Western Boulevard we have today – and which, as long as the existing zoning remains, is still the legally mandated status quo that must be maintained.
Much of this corridor retains zoning that was enacted in 1960. The “against” side seems to think that, by keeping the legal fiction of 1960 zoning on the books, they can bring back the world of 1960 and its world of modest houses on large lots along spacious roads. That’s a view of the world that belongs in an antique store; zoning is a law, not a time machine. The problems of today resulted from past decisions like low-density zoning, and particularly the mismatch between 62-year-old laws and present-day realities: a much larger population, much greater household diversity, and better knowledge of environmental consequences. Preventing changes that update those old laws will only exacerbate that mismatch.
1960’s zoning may have made sense here at a time when NCSU had 6,500 students (the size of Elon College today), RTP was an empty promise with zero jobs, and when Wake County had fewer than 170,000 residents (the size of Pitt County today). That zoning may have made sense then, before we knew that car dependence kills millions annually from crashes and from air pollution, or threatens the lives of billions through the global warming it causes. It may have made sense then, when federal officials, in thrall to the auto and sprawl industries, were handing out money for highways and ticky-tacky subdivisions. It may have made sense then, when local officials sought to use zoning to separate (and restrict) races and classes and family types.
Our world is different today, I hope our public officials know better today, and our zoning laws should reflect today. 1960’s low-density zoning makes no sense in the world of 2022, where NCSU has 34,000 students, we know there are better transportation choices than driving, and where low-density zoning results not in modest old houses - but rather $900,000 McMansions here, and commuters to here forced to drive in from 50 miles away.
Z-18-22 is a bold and different approach that will address (but cannot, like any one policy, solve) the complaints that the “against” side makes. Instead of 16 luxury townhouses, my family’s land can become 100 affordable apartments and a park. Unlike those who blame (as yet untried!) Z-18-22 for higher housing prices, we know that this rezoning will actually do something about the lack of more affordable housing choices. Only 1% of all American houses are new in any given year, so laws should allow that 1% to best reflect the houses we want in the future. Z-18-22 clearly states that Raleigh wants more choices, not just $900,000 mansions.
Allowing more homes to be built, especially smaller houses (using less materials) that use less land, absolutely will ease the housing affordability crunch. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, “the reason why people are on the streets isn’t just some elusive housing or market phenomenon. It’s because we’ve chosen not to build.” The voters of the city of Raleigh have risen to the challenge by approving funding for affordable housing, but now we need places to put it – and Z-18-22 does just that. Raleigh does not want to be in the situation where Oakland was in 2018, where mayor Libby Schaaf said “we had local bond money to purchase new shelters, but could only find one building. We [didn’t] have enough building stock to create supportive housing.” Nor does Raleigh have to be; through its zoning powers, it can create many new opportunities to create new housing at many price points.
The Western Boulevard corridor will continue to transform with the times; that much is certain. What we are choosing is whether to continue the deadly, unsustainable, unaffordable, unfair status quo chosen in 1960 – or to pursue the transformation that Wake County voters affirmed in 2016 by voting to create BRT on Western Boulevard. Z-18-22 is another step towards fulfilling the voters’ shared vision of Wake County voters – and another step towards ensuring continued funding from the Federal Transit Administration, which is closely evaluating whether federal taxpayers’ monies are well-spent in places whose zoning laws truly welcome transit.
I thank you for your attention. I look forward to further working with the City of Raleigh to advance our shared vision of a greater Raleigh.